About those sticks and stones ...

·4 min read

Oh, the childhood games we play. The things we tell ourselves that we want to believe are true.

I particularly remember something we said in our childhood: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

It was a lie then. It’s a lie now.

Words can be very hurtful. I remember a couple who were in my office due to marriage difficulties. At one point, the husband said, “I’ve been thinking about getting a divorce for 13 years.”

His words were shocking and hurtful to his wife. We’ve heard hurtful words directed at us, too: “You’re stupid,” “You’re fired,” “I don’t love you anymore.” Maybe you heard other words. They hurt.

And it’s not because “they really liked you” that they teased you. That was a lie, too.

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Some of the most hurtful words are slurs. Words that stain the spirit and personage of another. The word, slur, actually comes from a word that means mud. When we use a slur we’re “slinging mud.” Since the 1650’s it has meant to “disparage and depreciate” another.

That is, people use slurs to tell someone they are of less worth than others. They’re used to lessen another’s value and against one’s ethnicity, nationality, color, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

We know the words. You’ll not read them here. They’re hurtful, demeaning, and disrespectful. They reduce another’s dignity, equality, empowerment and significance.

Mihaela Popa-Wyatt, Ph.D. (Phil. Dept., Univ. of Manchester) and Jeremy L. Wyatt, Ph.D. (Lecturer, Univ. of Waikato) wrote in, “Slurs, Roles and Power,” that “Slurs can harm and degrade their targets, making them feel humiliated, dehumanized, disempowered, and silenced.”

They’re used to “convey contempt” and “achieve and maintain unjust power” over another.

Slurs are not harmless, even if they are a misspeak.

Bianca Cepollaro, Ph.D. (Prof., Univ. of Vita-Salute San Raffaele) in her article, “Slurs as the Shortcut to Discrimination,” says “slurs reflect and spread discrimination.” Also, that “slurs … signal (the targets of the slur) are unworthy of equal standing or full respect as persons, that they are inferior as persons.”

“They allow people to form judgments (on others that are not) based on (one’s) experience” of the other. Slurs are not harmless.

Kevin Cokley, Ph.D., (Prof., Univ. of Texas) wrote in, “The Psychological Impact of Racial Slurs,” that “The n-word … is incredibly painful and serves as a constant reminder to black people that no matter how much racial progress we have in this country, no matter how successful we are and how much education we have, the n-word will always serve (to) put us in our place.”

Slurs are even more hurtful than this. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) shows it in the “The Pyramid of Hate.”

It starts with people stereotyping others because of their fear of people’s differences, even seeking out information to confirm their beliefs and biases. In other words, not being open to hearing or reading opinions that disagree with one’s biases.

The next higher level of the Pyramid brings non-inclusive language, insensitive remarks, belittling jokes, name-calling, ridiculing, and slurs. These lead to higher levels of discrimination and violence, ultimately reaching their peak in genocide.

Slurs are words of hate carried, knowingly or unknowingly, in anyone who uses them. They’re words of discrimination; words of contempt, disrespect, and disregard for the value, equality and worth of another. And the person using them reveals that they regard the person they are slurring to be beneath them — inferior to them — unequal in value, worth and importance to them and society.

As Bianca Cepollaro said, “slurs reflect and spread discrimination.” They are not harmless expressions of one’s prejudice and hatred.

Sadly, some people just want to be prejudiced, hateful and discriminatory. And that’s what one is — prejudiced, hateful or discriminatory when one uses slurs. Maybe all three. In light of this, it is vital we pay heed to the words of the ADL: “when people or institutions treat … attitudes and language with silence or non-action, the bias keeps moving up the pyramid to acts of discrimination and possibly violence.”

One Halloween I was trick-or-treating with my younger sister, with our mother chaperoning. I said something to or about another child. My mother immediately stopped us, turned in my direction, locked eyes with me, and firmly instructed me to never talk to or about other people in that way again.

She refused to be silent in that moment. I remember that moment 60+ years later. To be silent and take no action when others use slurs condones their use and encourages people to say them again. Since there is no over-the-counter remedy for the hurt they inflict, slurs demand a response for the harm they do.

The Rev. Donnley Dutcher is pastor emeritus of St. John UCC in Freeport.

This article originally appeared on Journal Standard: About those sticks and stones ...

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